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6 minute read.
So now let me tell you.
In Greece there is an island.
In Greece there are many islands, but on this particular island the stone path winds and spirals, spirals and winds around and up. As you climb it takes you further in towards the centre of the island, away from the sea and onto higher ground. In the very middle of this island is an old olive tree, protected by a short wall. The trunk twists upwards towards the sky, giving the impression that the path continues up its trunk, and might climb all the way up to the sky.
But if you keep your feet on the ground and continue onward, following the earth-bound path that has led you to this tree, it starts to lead you away from the centre. Back towards the water. And as you descend to the shore, the path spirals and winds out again, spooling back down the hill, so that you return to the outer edge of the land. Back to the harbour and the boat jetty where the ferries and speed boats from the mainland arrive and leave.
Round and round we go. And where we stop nobody knows.
First of all, there was the Easy Jet plane out of London Gatwick. A trusty orange and white steed charging straight into the sunset, speeding its cargo of passengers towards a Greek island at the end of peak season. Among them, in isle E – window seat – hand-luggage-only – was Julia, her husband Joseph and sandwiched between them their children Emily and Jack.
“There’s something charming about out of season resorts,” Julia said. “They make me feel wistful.”
But her family didn’t find the idea charming or exciting. Deep down they knew that out of season was all that they could afford. They found themselves the only ones in the restaurant at lunch time. Everywhere in the resort bars were selling their last meal, serving their last drink and then boarding up their doors for a well-earned break. The children were particularly put out when the beach cafe ran out of their post- swim hot chocolate and pulled down the shutters.
“No more ‘til the next delivery,” the bar person explained.
“Oh, and when will that be?” asked Julia brightly. “Perhaps we can come back tomorrow, Emily?” She said reassuringly.
“Next delivery, next holiday season.” Then the shutter was pulled down with a slam.
Julia tried to make her family see the funny side of it all; the ridiculous nature of being the last people to buy hot chocolate this year. It reminded her of an old sketch show about a post office queue, and the little windows closing as the main character approached the front of each line. The look of surprise on her nine-year old daughter’s face – so used to city living and the constant availability of everything – was priceless.
Even out of season it was beautiful. The warmth of the sun was rich and deep in the afternoon but towards the end of each day the sky clouded over, a moody tantrum brewing around the edges of the perfect view. As the evening approached there was a hint of the autumn to come. Julia took out a tube of hand cream from her handbag – a little luxury she had picked up in duty free. It smelt of sweet oranges with a warm musty back note of sandal wood or something similar. She enjoyed the way it absorbed into the back of her hand, disappearing to nothing and smoothing out her skin, making it shiny and luminous. She paid particular attention to her cuticles working the cream into the beds of her nails.
The view from their balcony was mesmerising. The grey flat stones smoothly absorbed the October light. Sunlight danced on the water; clouds were reflected in the shallows. The sky stretched out in a seemingly preposterous blue. Solid blue, like glass. The deep bruise of the hills rose sharply away from the water’s edge covered with short and twisted greenery. And there was a sandy stone island spiralling up in the bay. It reminded Julia of an ice-cream or some kind of confectionery in a patisserie window. Caramel coloured in the setting sun. Intoxicating.
“Can you tell me about the island in the bay?” Julia asked the hotel receptionist. “Do people live there?”
“Not really anymore.” He replied. “Just tourists.”
“I’d like to visit it.”
“You want to be careful on that island.”
“I know they used to send sick people there,” Julia replied.
“There are all kinds of stories about it.”
“Yes, just imagine, how hideous to be trapped on an island waiting to die. Greece is such a great place for dramatic tales and myths don’t you think?”
This time the receptionist made no reply, so she tried again.
“We would really like to visit it.”
“The ferry goes from the town or you can hire a speed boat from the jetty. Speed boat is more expensive, but faster.” The receptionist didn’t waste words on small talk.
“I think we should get a speed boat, don’t you?” Julia asked Joseph over dinner. They were eating at the hotel, a buffet style affair. Joseph seemed distracted by the amount of chocolate sauce Jack was pouring over his ice-cream at the dessert station. “Let’s treat ourselves to a speed boat,” she repeated. “That’s what holidays are about – making memories. The kids will love it. A proper adventure!”
Joseph was less keen. Worried about the extravagance of it no doubt, but in the end, she persuaded him.
The next morning the speed boat was waiting for them at the jetty. The skipper was called Alexander and he wore a peaked Captain’s hat which he put on Emily’s head as she climbed aboard. Julia thought that it felt like a holiday from a brochure, and that they looked exactly like the kind of family from a catalogue. Alexander accelerated the boat so that they all fell back in their seats laughing. He even let the children hold the wheel for a moment when they were in open water.
As they approached the island what had looked like warm coloured flaky pastry floating in the bay, began to take shape as an arid and dusty landscape. There were no cars on the island still, it being preserved as some kind of tourist haven. In peak season donkeys were tethered beside the jetty and touts offered rides on them. Julia saw an old woman dressed completely in black, her head covered and carrying a huge bundle of sticks walking up the steep path. She was almost bent double under her burden.
“Where is she off to with those? I wonder what she thinks of all these tourists,” Julia said to no one in particular. “Her pace is pretty good up that hill considering the climb!”
Alexander offered Julia a hand to step out of the boat and playfully whisked his hat back off Emily’s head. They agreed a time for him to meet them back on the jetty and walked off down the wooden boards. Surprisingly at the end of the little pier there was a stall selling trinkets and ice-cream, watermelon slices and water. A few trees giving the only shade in sight, and one solitary mule tied to a post, swishing his tail as a fly crawled across his face. Just beyond this the path began to climb.
Joseph strode ahead. He wore linen trousers, a white shirt and a straw hat in the long-standing tradition of the Englishman abroad. Emily was a few paces behind him, skipping along lightly. The heat didn’t bother her, and she was already turning a lovely golden brown. The path was steep and curved round sharply so that the pair went out of sight, and then back in view again as Julia rounded the bend herself.
She stopped waiting for Jack who had a stone in his shoe. Joseph never waited. He seemed to be able to stride off without looking back. Julia couldn’t do this. She waited and fussed and checked and clucked. Like a mother hen she thought disparagingly.
The small pebble was found and flung to the side of the path but as soon as she had finished helping Jack re-tie his shoelaces, he launched himself off over the cobble stones like a mountain goat. Galloping and shouting to his big sister and father that he was coming. “Last one to the top is a rotten egg!” said Julia under her breath.
Julia tried to pick up her pace. She could see that Jack had caught up with Joseph and Emily. All three of them paused for a second, Emily looked back down the hill and waved. Julia imagined that she was smiling, but she couldn’t really tell from this distance. Then Emily turned away again, and all three of them continued on the path ahead of her and were soon out of sight.
As Julia walked up the hill after them, she amused herself at first by looking at the derelict houses at the side of the road and imagining what it would have been like to live here. They had square glass-less windows like unblinking eyes and toothless yawns for doors. She must read up more on the history of the island and find out some of those stories that the hotel receptionist had been referring to. She was thirsty and paused to gulp down some water from the bottle in her bag before carrying on again.
As she rounded the next bend, she expected to see her family, but they were too far ahead. She had been walking for some time now. The path was dusty, and her toes were caked in dirt. The back of her head throbbed, and she felt a little dizzy. Julia wished she had worn a hat and scooped her scarf over her head to shield her from the sun. In the distance she could hear the discordant bray of the donkey. The path climbed steeply, and she tried to keep her pace steady, fixing her gaze on the next bend.
As she turned the corner, she expected to see her family, but they were still out of sight. She paused to gulp down some water. Julia turned to look behind her, there was no one in view. She looked ahead and saw no-one either. She wondered vaguely where the other few tourists who had taken the ferry rather than a speed boat were. Was there another path? Her bag felt heavy on her back, and she bent forward slightly to tackle the hill.
At the next bend, she expected to see her family but there was still no sign of them. The path widened and opened out into a small square. There was a wizened and twisted olive tree surrounded by a dry-stone circular wall in the centre. Julia sat down in the shade of the tree and rested. From here she could look back down towards the shore, the water and beyond that the mainland with its icing sugar white hotels and apartment blocks.
Up here the light was golden. It bounced off the dusty stone walls and the dirt track. The ruined edge of the buildings was like honeycomb. Crumbling into shards and biscuity rubble. It was so quiet. The noise from the bay, of boats arriving and leaving, the lone donkey and the cry from the stallholder selling cold drinks sounded like an echo.
The sunlight bounced off the water, splitting and refracting. She had to shield her eyes against it, they were watering and felt smaller. She pulled her scarf more firmly around her face. Julia’s hands felt dry, Damn! She hadn’t brought her hand cream with her; it was in the hotel room. She pushed herself up to standing on aching feet.
In the distance she could see the water line and the jetty where they had arrived. She noticed a few people arriving from the ferry boat and imagined that she could smell diesel on the air. Like tar and liquorice. There was also a small huddle of people waiting at the end of the jetty beside a compact white and chrome speed boat. Two men, one with a straw hat and a straight back and the other with a peaked cap and two children, a girl and a boy. They were looking up the path, searching the horizon. The tall man with the hat kept glancing at his watch. She looked down at them shimmering in the heat as if they were about to dissolve.
Julia rubbed the back of her hands and stretched out her fingers to catch the sunlight. Her skin was papery and ridged with wrinkles as if rivulets of water had run their way across her fingers, leaving valleys and fissures. The veins were blueish and stood up under the skin, light coffee coloured spots scattered across her knuckles. They were the hands of an old woman.
Julia bent to pick up her bundle of sticks and pulled the black head scarf further over her hair to shield her face from the sun. Her mouth was parched, and her feet hurt. She couldn’t remember how long she had been walking for. She couldn’t remember why she had stopped. Hoisting the sticks on to her back she began the slow trudge back down to the shore. Breathing heavily with the effort.
So now let me tell you.
In Greece there is an island.
In Greece there are many islands, but on this particular island the stone path winds and spirals, spirals and winds around and up. Down to the shore, up to the tree. This path, it is said, takes you right up to the middle of the island – but also leads you on another journey altogether.